II Samuel 7:1–14
Mark 6:30–34, 53–56
In two of our passages today, we encounter discussions of hostility, alienation, restlessness—how easy it is for our lives in New York City to display these traits. This city is notoriously alienating. Despite how physically close we are to millions of people every single day, our life situations have a strange way of promoting isolation.
We’re all little islands, lone wolves coming and going, hurrying and rushing, many of us returning to empty homes, or homes filled with roommates or family members every bit as tired and ready for bed as we are.
Yes, our lives are also often filled with restlessness. We get up early, rush out to our jobs or our classes or our events. We’ll go out for hours hurrying on foot to get to where we’re going as fast as we can, so we can get ahead—get ahead in our career, or just to get ahead of all the other people on the street not going as fast as we’d like them to.
Sometimes we are like the people in this Gospel story, with “no leisure even to eat.”
What could such lives result in but hostility? Maybe we’re hostile to strangers, cursing at them to get out of our way, or to do a better job, or to stop inconveniencing us. Or maybe we’re just silently hostile, thinking mean thoughts about the guy blasting music on the subway, or the girl walking in front of you who stops in the middle of the sidewalk just to look at her phone.
We are often in a hurry, impatient, restless.
It doesn’t help that the society in which we live assesses our value based on our work. “What do you do? What’s your occupation?” These are the questions we ask when we first meet someone. We tend to think an unemployed person is one who does not contribute to society. Work requirements are attached to welfare benefits. Distinctions are made between the deserving and the undeserving poor. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” So work. Work harder. Work more.
And, unfortunately, for those of us who are socially active, our activism can be a contributing factor to our restlessness. In fact, activism can be an even more stressful form of work, as the stakes can be much higher than simply making money to provide for ourselves. Social changes can affect millions of people, and if we don’t resist bad changes and promote good ones, those people suffer indefinitely.
So come to this rally, canvas for that political candidate, join this party, go to that branch meeting, sign this petition, show your support for that issue, call your senators, and the list goes on. And every day brings us more issues for resistance.
I have seen up close that the culture of activism can be a very tense and stressful one. The stakes are always so high, and you are never doing enough.
At several rallies, I have heard people chant, “No justice, no peace!” And every time I feel a little uneasy about that particular chant. On the one hand, I certainly agree that there can be no lasting peace without justice, and that justice brings peace. One thing we look forward to as Christians is the day when all is made right, when justice rolls down like waters, and as a consequence, all creation lives in peace.
I also understand that the phrase is intended to be a message to authorities: We will not give you peace until you give us justice! And that is certainly a message I can get behind.
But at the same time, the chant makes me wary because it also seems to imply that there will be no peace for the activists until there is justice, as if to say, “We will not have peace until we have justice.” Peace is thus deferred to the future day of justice, and the present is perpetually defined by high stress work towards justice. That, to me, seems rather unfortunate.
I was at a museum exhibition last year, and on one of the art pieces there was a line of text that read, “workers of the world…*relax*.” This is of course a play on the Marxist rallying cry, “Workers of the world: unite!” Unite to fight for justice, resist the status quo.
Now, I do believe that we should fight for justice. I do believe that we should resist the status quo. I do believe that we should not be apathetic or idle. We shouldn’t be complacent or resigned. We should work toward the common good. We should resist and protest and canvas and call our senators, and all that.
But we find in our scriptures today an encouragement not to get swallowed up in the relentless hustle and bustle. We are encouraged to chill out, and maybe go off to a deserted place untouched by the fray of restless city life. We are encouraged to rest, to find an oasis of peace in Christ.
Setting aside time for rest is a declaration that our lives are not consumed by or defined by our work.
Jesus sees all our coming and going, our hurrying and rushing, our working and striving—and he looks on it all with compassion. It’s the kind of look someone you love gives you when they can tell you are distressed. Maybe you’ve had a long day at work, and you come home to a bunch of chores that need doing. When you start cleaning the dishes, you find yourself overwhelmed, and in quite a state. But in comes that someone. He or she sees your distress, and wants to relieve you. “How can I help?”
When I was a kid, I was in Bible Quiz for a couple years. We memorized whole books of the Bible, and then gathered once a week to be quizzed on how well we knew them. Now, I’m a perfectionist, so when I was in Bible Quiz, I took it very seriously, and tried to memorize everything perfectly, and answer every question exactly right. It was…incredibly stressful.
I remember one day I was in my room trying to memorize a passage from the book of Romans, and I just kept messing up. I would skip sentences on accident, or fail to remember the next sentence, or misremember a verse. I was quite flustered as a result, beating myself up for my deficiency.
It was then that my dad walked in. He saw me sitting on my bed, my eyes full of tears, with my Bible in my hands. He immediately looked concerned and asked, “What is wrong?” In a broken voice, I told him I sucked at memorizing, and he laughed and shot me a look of reassurance and grace. It was a smile with lightness behind it, unburdened by the load I was carrying. It said, “Don’t worry about it. It’s not that big of a deal.” And then he took me downstairs and encouraged me to put it away for the night.
Jesus wants to provide us with a similar relief. “Come to me, all who are weary or burdened, and I will give you rest,” he says, “for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28, 30).
In our Gospel passage, it says the crowds were “like sheep without a shepherd,” they were “coming and going,” with “no leisure even to eat.” They were hurrying on foot, rushing about the whole region. And Jesus had compassion on them. He wanted to relieve them of their burdens.
If you look at our Ephesians passage, you’ll notice a similar theme. The Gentiles were far off, alienated as strangers, oppressed by a dividing wall that kept them in hostility with others. They were in the world without hope and without God.
But Jesus had compassion on them. In Christ, it says, they are given reconciliation, and with reconciliation, peace. In Christ, all are brought together in the household of God. Hostility is overcome and wholeness is firmly established. We are given “the peace of God, which passes all understanding” (Phil. 4:7).
In Christ, we await new growth and abundance, the overcoming of suffering and evil, the restoration and reparation of all things—and not only the restoration and reparation, but the making new of all things. “The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the goat” (Isa. 11:6). The nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isa. 2:4). This is the reconciliation and peace that Christ accomplished in his victory over sin and death. It is this reconciliation and peace that we are promised in Christ.
One new humanity, joined together as a holy temple, a dwelling place for God. Peace.
You do not have to earn it. You do not have to deserve it. You do not have to work yourself to the bone to make it happen. Christ has done it all.
The good works that pour from our lives now are simply the fruits of the harvest that Jesus began. Jesus accomplished reconciliation, and so we reconcile with others. Jesus accomplished peace, and so we rest. Our success, our victory, and the fruits of our labor are ensured in Christ. We do not have to fret, we do not have to worry. We are free, free for justice, free for reconciliation, free for peace.
So in your freedom, rest. Make sure that you rest. Fit it into your schedule. Give yourself ample time to relax, to take life easy, to kick back and chill awhile.
It is in rest that we regain a sense of wholeness. Our burdens fall off our shoulders as we ease back and unwind. Rest gives us to time re-calibrate.
And with the wholeness we receive in rest, we won’t live tense, uptight lives. We won’t be impatient with those around us. We will overcome hostility, instead of being infused with it. We will be more forgiving, more patient, more understanding. As we receive mercy and compassion in rest, we share mercy and compassion in the wholeness that follows.
My favorite album of the year so far is called There’s a Riot Going On. It’s by the band Yo La Tengo. I think the title of the album refers to the hostile, tense, high stakes time in which we find ourselves today. But it isn’t a protest album. It’s not an album full of righteous indignation or the fury of resistance. In fact, it’s gentle, soothing, and compassionate—almost medicinal! It’s as if they band is saying, “There’s a riot going on. You need some rest.”
In a time fraught with tension and strife and bad news, we need some rest. And we can rest in the assurance of Christ’s victory over sin and death, in the assurance of reconciliation and peace which God established for us. In Christ, we are allowed to rest! You are allowed to rest!
It sounds funny to say it that way, but sometimes it’s exactly the way we need to hear it, because sometimes we don’t allow ourselves the time to rest.
I say again, you don’t have to die to rest in peace.
And I want to leave you with the following questions: What brings you peace? How can you find your way there? What is a restful practice for you? How can you introduce more rest into your life?
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon for the
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Old First Reformed Church
July 22, 2018